As the community of Uvalde, Texas begins to process the shock, horror, and tragedy of the senseless killing of 19 elementary school children and two teachers, our nation is also left with a sense of grief as we grapple with the question, “How can anyone survive such a horrific event and come out on the other side whole?”
It is at times like this that we as mental health counselors, parents, and adults must become the stretcher bearers and provide love, comfort, and strength to all around us and acknowledge what the victims and families will face. When we take time to understand the consequences they will experience as survivors, we can better serve as a strong support system to them in the coming days.
Mass shootings manifest profound mental health repercussions on survivors, families, and friends.
For survivors, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and major depressive disorder (MDD) are among the many mental health challenges encountered. Others include anxiety disorder, death anxiety, panic disorder, phobias, prolonged grief disorder, and substance abuse.
Acts of violence such as mass shootings cause PTSD in 95% of people, and studies show that children exposed to sudden, unexpected mass violence reported greater emotional trauma with PTSD rates of up to 100 percent.
A significant number of mass shooting survivors will face long-term mental health disorders.
For many trauma survivors, PTSD and MDD will overlap and comorbidity will occur causing greater impairment and development of chronic disorders. As we examine the lives of past survivors, we can see that psychological illnesses can play out in different ways. Sherrie Lewis survived the September 16, 2013, rampage at the Navy Yard in Washington, D.C. where 12 people were killed by 34-year-old Aaron Alexis. In a 2019 NPR interview, Lewis described her constant need to search for escape exits during the day, and her nightmares, panic attacks, and inability to sleep. She sought out a doctor after experiencing this for three months and was diagnosed with PTSD, MDD and severe anxiety. She suffered a mini-stroke a year later and eventually sought intensive PTSD treatment.
Another survivor, Austin Eubanks, with whom I had a personal relationship, was among students who witnessed the Columbine High School’s massacre on April 20, 1999, where 13 people were killed. The Columbine shooting was, at the time, the worst high school shooting in U.S. history. For Austin, the experience caused an addiction disorder. He became an Opioid drug addict and then overcame his addiction to become an advocate for others and a motivational speaker on addiction and recovery. He died of an accidental heroin overdose at the age of 37.
Studies reveal that psychological distress can cause a 20% increase in alcohol use following exposure to terror, and a 16.3% increase in drug use, as in Columbine survivor Eubanks’ case.
Other survivors will intentionally take their own lives. PTSD as well as “survivor’s guilt” can lead to suicidal ideation or attempts. Two Parkland, Florida survivors, 19-year-old Sydney Aiello and 16-year-old Calvin Desir, committed suicide within one week of one another. That same week, Jeremy Richmond, the father of Sandy Hook victim Avielle Richmond, ended his life.
Mass Shooting Communities and Americans’ everyday lives are impacted by terror.
Research of the impact a mass shooting can have on the community in which the crime occurred suggests that even those who did not witness the terror can experience mental health consequences. Increased levels of fear and a sense of loss of safety are often elevated within the community. A 5-10% increase in PTSD rates in one community was found after a mass violence incident. Mass shootings can impact communities with avoidance coping such as fear, anxiety, drug use, depression and can increase arousal, anger, and vigilance.
In addition, heightened levels of fear are more pervasive in our nation as more people are tethered to their smartphones and can access the news cycle 24 hours a day. With 301 million smartphone users in the United States, it is more likely that we perceive our safety is decreasing. Following the 2017 Mandalay Bay Resort and Casino shooting, in which 22,000 terrified concertgoers witnessed 59 people being killed, a Gallup poll revealed that four out of 10 Americans said they were “very” or “somewhat” worried that they or their loved ones would become victims of a mass shooting.
How we Move Forward to Heal Together
As our nation mourns the victims of another mass shooting, the small community of Uvalde, TX will experience profound feelings of hopelessness and helplessness. However, amid the tragedy, support has already begun to flood in via monetary donations on GoFundMe accounts, blood donations, funeral homes offering free burial services, and attorneys providing free legal services. Sandy and Lonnie Phillips, a couple who founded the organization Survivors Empowered , are already in Uvalde to assist. They lost their daughter, Jessica Redfield Ghawi, when she was killed in the 2012 shooting at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado. The Phillipses have made it their mission to offer comfort and resources to other survivors of gun violence. Crisis Response Canines is sending six teams of certified handlers and dogs to Uvalde from New Jersey, Ohio, and Florida.
All of this is evidence that the resilience and grit in our nation’s psyche will prevail for healing to occur. In the days and weeks to come, we must all talk with each other about the incident. Families of survivors will need to be truthful about their feelings, open up the lines of communication in new ways with their spouses, and talk with their children about what has happened. Here is a list of additional resources for your family:
- The American Counseling Association offers “Coping in the Aftermath of a Shooting” in its knowledge center.
- The National Alliance for Mental Illness has a list of seven tools for managing traumatic stress.
- The National Institutes of Health has a more biological, science-based look at the effects of traumatic stress on the body and mind.